Songs of Jacques Brel, Assembly @ St George's West; Spiegeltent, George Square

Tributes to Brel's world of lovers and losers
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The Independent Culture

Belgium doesn't have much to celebrate musically, with Franck and Lekeu being the only two classical composers of any real note to come from the nation. So the 75th anniversary of the birth of the Belgian-born Jacques Brel has prompted a welcome reassessment of the singer-songwriter in a burst of concerts and shows in his native country, and also in France where he made his reputation as a chansonnier.

Belgium doesn't have much to celebrate musically, with Franck and Lekeu being the only two classical composers of any real note to come from the nation. So the 75th anniversary of the birth of the Belgian-born Jacques Brel has prompted a welcome reassessment of the singer-songwriter in a burst of concerts and shows in his native country, and also in France where he made his reputation as a chansonnier.

Edinburgh is hosting two shows devoted to his music and, if neither quite captures the hypnotic stage presence of the troubadour, who died in 1978, or reaches the hinterlands of his emotional landscape, each engages the audience in its own particular way.

The Belgian Micheline Van Hautem, singing mainly in French, draws on the colour and lyrical detail which illuminates Brel's comic and tragic cameos of love, his haunting soliloquies on life and death, and everything that comes between, principally sex. Life hurts, youth dies, understanding heals, intimacy warms, she sings, always sensitive to the music and its shape in relation to the words. Poignant in "Ne me quitte pas" perky in "Au suivant", and full of fresh and vivid abandon in "La valse à mille temps", Van Hautem is fortunate to have two such sympathetic musical partners. The astonishing accordionist Frederik Caelen coaxes the most beguiling sounds from his instrument, especially in a solo arrangement of Richard Galliano's "La valse à Margaux",while a musical saw adds an ethereal dimension to several numbers.

The Irish singer Camille O'Sullivan, on the other hand, fleshes out Brel's characters - losers, lovers, lechers - with great humour, alternating zest and melancholy, and exaggerating every possible nuance and quirk in his often enigmatic cameos. In the more appropriate setting of the Spiegeltent, and accompanied by saxophone, bass, guitar and keyboard, she throws herself with exhilarating gusto into such earthy numbers as "Amsterdam". She takes liberties, however, adding her very individual, piquant own gloss for example to "La valse à mille temps", crudely transformed into English as "Carousel". Although she is adept at switching moods - from the heart-breaking "Marieke" ("In Flanders field, the poppies die/ Since you are gone") to the bitterly regretful "Never to be next" - her show contains strident echoes of the Weimar Republic cabaret, whose quite different style of songs she features in her other Edinburgh entertainment, Dark Angel.

O'Sullivan adds her own histrionic note to Brel's drunkards, lost children and disconsolate prostitutes, and her often acrid interpretation leaves a sour taste.

Less refined in texture and less beguiling in manner than Van Hautem, O'Sullivan's exuberant energy and abrasive showmanship gets right under the skin of Brel's subjects, people who hang on, in spite of what life has thrown at them, refusing to abandon the joy of life or the hope that makes it worth living.

To 30 August; call 0131 226 2428/8940

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